As I we close out the 2012-2013 TV season, I’ve noticed that a long-standing trend in only getting worse. A common theme in scripted television is that these shows tell great stories all the way up to the end of the season, and then they can’t stick the landing.
Season finales are broken.
The expectation of a season finale in 2013 is that it will end on a cliffhanger. It started all the way back in 1980 with “Who shot J.R.?” on Dallas. Today, cliffhangers are no longer just the standard for dramas. Comedies like How I Met Your Mother and Modern Family end their seasons with cliffhangers.
The reason cliffhangers are the new normal (including on NBC’s The New Normal) is that in a crowded television landscape, television executives believe that we viewers need to be given a reason to return to a show the following year. While each show tries their unique take on the cliffhanger, most boil down to either “Who will live?”, “Will they or won’t they?” or “Who is behind the secret conspiracy?”
TV execs believe curiosity drives the audience when we decide which shows to continue watching the following year. Unfortunately, this reasoning is flawed. As an audience, we almost never make any conscious decisions about what shows to watch.
Instead, when a new season starts, there are some returning shows that we are instinctually drawn back to. Each of us is subconsciously attracted to the shows that left a positive imprint on our neural cortex. The rest of the shows are put at the bottom of the TV To Do list and ultimately are forgotten. So, what is imprinted on our brain? The last episode we watched. The season finale.
What is the best way to leave a positive impression at the end of a season? Closure. In all great storytelling, the beginning and the middle is followed by the end, not to be continued. A cliffhanger ending leaves the viewers wanting more, but emotionally they are leaving the viewers wanting.
This is one of the reasons for the rise of reality TV. Great seasons of non-scripted television have a climatic and definitive end. In the heyday of reality TV, seasons ended when a new Apprentice was hired, a bachelorette was proposed to by The Bachelor and a new American Idol was crowned. Whether the audience liked the ending or hated it, everyone left the season finale with closure.
So what’s the Rich Fix for season finales?
All of scripted TV needs to learn the lesson taught by NBC’s Parks and Recreation. In seasons past, the Executive Producers (not knowing whether their show would be renewed for another year) wrote many of their season finales as if each were the series finale, so that the fans would have a satisfying closure to the show. Most notably was last year’s “Win, Lose or Draw” episode, where Leslie fulfills her dream of becoming an elected official. The emotional closure of that finale created an extremely positive imprint on the brains of the fans. Four months later, more people tuned in to the season premiere. Everyone was drawn back to P&R.
(Ironically, Parks and Recreation broke its own rule this year, when renewal seemed certain, with a “Ron Swanson’s girlfriend is pregnant” cliffhanger. It was the most unsatisfying season finale in the show’s history.)
Take my advice, TV industry. Don’t listen to market research or focus groups. If you want us fans to come back next year, give us closure in your each of your season finales. Let each roller coaster ride come to an end, so we can look back and enjoy the ride we were just on. Make us feel like the year we spent in your world was time well spent, not just the preamble to next season. If you give us satisfying closure, TV industry, we’ll sign up for another year. And then you too can enjoy a happy ending.